Visit to a Small Planet

by Gore Vidal

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Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 602

McCarthyism and American Life The mid-1950s marked the height of Americas" 'Red Scare''—a widespread fear of Communism that reached its peak in the investigations of the House Un-American Activities hearings, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy (a Republican from Wisconsin) In 1950, McCarthy advised President Harry Truman that the State Department was staffed with many Communists and Communist sympathizers. In addition, he suspected that a great number of Communists were working in fields that might influence public opinion, including the film and television industries. In the following years, McCarthy performed what was often called a "witch hunt'' to prove the degree to which he felt Communists had infiltrated levels of American society. His hearings grew into popular, televised events where he and others would "Red-Bait" the accused; many entertainers and writers found themselves "blacklisted'' (refused employment) either for their often inconsequential Communist affiliations or for refusing to cooperate with what they saw as McCarthy's unconstitutional methods. Events such as the Soviet Union's 1956 invasion of Hungary served to fan McCarthy's fire. McCarthy died in 1957 but not before receiving the formal censure of the United States Senate for his hearings on alleged subversion in the U.S. Army.

Like Arthur Miller's The Crucible (1953), Visit to a Small Planet attacks (although in a more comic vein) this prominent fear of Communism. On his newscast announcing the impending war with the Soviet Union, Roger Spelding warns, "[Soviet Premier] Nikita Krushchev and his gang" that "Mother-and-Father-America are ready." General Powers suspects Kreton of being an "alien spy" sent to the United States to "reconnoiter preparatory to invasion"; his fear of Kreton's origins is a metaphorical look at the red-baiting occurring in the McCarthy hearings. The characters' overall paranoia provoked by Kreton's visit reflects the prominent fear of Communist invasion found in 1950s America, described by Kreton as "the wonderfully primitive assumption that all strangers are hostile.''

Nuclear Weapons and Warfare While nuclear power is now a part of contemporary American life, such was not always the case. Electric power was first produced from atomic energy in Idaho in 1951 and the first United States hydrogen bomb was exploded, at Edniwetok Atoll in the Pacific, in 1952. At this point, nuclear power was something strange and frightening to many Americans; however, atomically generated power was first used in the United States (in Schenectady, New York) in 1955. A growing concern over what nations possessed the knowledge and resources necessary for creating "the bomb" became a routine topic for newscasters, writers, and citizens. Underground "bomb shelters" were also being sold to American homeowners who wanted to avoid the dangers of a possible atomic attack.

Visit to a Small Planet reflects the growing American concern over the possibly of nuclear war. When Kreton's initial attempt at triggering a global war succeeds, General Powers warns him that the Russians "got the bomb, too," to which Kreton replies, "Oh, I hope so!" His attitude toward atomic warfare as "exciting" and a cause for delight contrasts the terror of such an event taking place in the 1950s. Even more indicative of this fear is the way that Kreton begins the war: by causing every rifle in the world to levitate for a few seconds, Kreton plays a prank that causes the two major world powers to prepare for war. The idea of a war being started over such a "minor" event reflects the popular idea of "the button," which would, in the imagination of many Americans, be pressed by a mad foreign leader for an insignificant reason. The fear being that the fate of millions lies in the hands of...

(This entire section contains 602 words.)

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one or two men's hands.

Literary Style

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Satire "Satire" is any work of art that uses ridicule, humor, and wit in order to criticize and provoke change in human nature or social institutions; satire can be found anywhere from Shakespeare (Measure for Measure) to an editorial newspaper cartoon. Vidal is widely known as a satirical writer, and Visit to a Small Planet is a work that strengthens such a reputation: when Kreton, an alien visitor, invades a middle-class Virginia home, the characters react to him in ways that showcase their fears and frustrations with their own lives. The play examines (and pokes fun at) contemporary ideas about war, the fear of "foreign" invasion, and attitudes toward sex. Vidal ridicules military bureaucracy and paranoia through General Powers, the influence of television on American life with Roger Spelding, and, in general, the irrational, "primitive" impulses that often govern our lives. Through the eyes of Kreton, an alien with little understanding of American life, Vidal is able to offer his viewers an "objective look" at our society and attitudes—as well as a commentary on how odd (or even silly) these ideas and attitudes may be.

Setting Rather than offer his audience a play about aliens that occurs on another planet, Vidal offers his viewers a look at how we would seem “alien'' to an extraterrestrial visitor. To accomplish this, Vidal sets his play in a modest, middle-class home, allowing Kreton, the alien, to see a "typical" American family whose concerns are television, college, sex, marriage, and patriotism. Doing so emphasizes how odd many Americans would seem to a "visitor' ! unaccustomed to our quirks, values, and everyday way of life.

Stereotype One of Vidal's most prominent satirical targets here is the United States military (and in a larger sense, that American government) and the way that it approaches any form of alien (or foreign) life. In drama, a "stereotype'' character is an exaggeration of a certain type of person, such as the lovelorn poet, the disaffected teenager, or the dorky nerd with tape holding his glasses together. General Powers is a stereotype of the American military commander, and Vidal forms this stereotype with a variety of traits. For example, the play begins with him complaining to Roger Spelding that he has been assigned to investigate the appearance of Kreton's spaceship: "Strat-Air tosses it to Major General Spotty McClelland (he's Com Air Int. now) who lobs it straight at me so by the time I get back from luncheon I find I've been TD'd C.O.S. Priority 1-A the hell and bloody UFO deal dumped right in my lap." The General's use of so many acronyms and jargon-laden speech parodies the language employed by the military. Adding to this stereotype is the General's complete fear and suspicion of anyone foreign. At first suspecting Kreton of being "a spy sent here by an alien race," the General eventually accepts the fact that Kreton is from another planet, but not before he tells him that the Pentagon has "classified him as a weapon" because he can create force fields that will "put radar out of business." The General's inability to see Kreton as anything except a possible weapon to be used against enemies of the United States marks him as a stereotype of one-track military minds.

To a certain extent the other characters, with the exception of Ellen, represent stereotypes as well. Roger is a typical broadcaster, more interested in the next "big story'' that will elevate his status than he is with the welfare of his family. Likewise, his wife, Reba, is more concerned with the family's outward appearance and how others in the neighborhood will perceive them (her worries that Kreton may have trampled her garden when he landed) than any real threat to their lives. Reba is a stereotype of the unrealistic 1950s housewife ideal—like June Cleaver on the Leave It to Beaver television series—a woman who cooks, cleans, and gardens, yet still looks fresh as a daisy twenty-four hours a day. While Vidal sympathizes more with his views than the other characters, Conrad is still the butt of many jokes about unmotivated young men who halfheartedly fly the flag of pacifism.

Black Humor "Black humor" refers to comedy created by means not usually regarded as proper subjects for laughter. For example, although Visit to a Small Planet is a comedy, the plot concerns an impending nuclear war and the destruction of the entire world for one person's amusement. Although this seems like an odd subject for a series of jokes, Vidal uses the characters' reactions to this event to satirize modern attitudes towards warfare and violence. Vidal's play seems to suggest that any objective visitor to our nation would find many of our ideas and actions ludicrous and, therefore, funny. By using a "typical American family," Vidal also turns the mirror to the audience, letting them see how ridiculous they might act in a similar situation.

Compare and Contrast

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1950s: American fear of Communism increases, spurred by the U.S.S.R.'s signing of a 30-year pact with Communist China (in 1950), North Korea's invasion of South Korea (1950), the passing of the McCarran Act which calls for severe restrictions against allowing Communists into the United States or of immigrants who have belonged to totalitarian organizations (1950), and the mid-decade McCarthy hearings that attempt to uncover Communist infiltration in all levels of American society.

Today: Communism has ceased to be viable world power. The former Soviet Communist empire is now broken into smaller nations, each with its own form of government. The Communist-controlled state of East Germany faded with the reunification of East and West Germany and the fall of the Berlin Wall. China remains the only large country to still employ Communist principles.

1950s: Nuclear power rises as both a global and national concern; the United States tests the Hydrogen bomb in 1952 and electric power is first created by atomic means in 1955.

Today: Although the threat of nuclear devastation has been somewhat allayed by the breakdown of the Soviet Union, many politicians and leaders still call for increased disarmament. Nuclear power has become more a part of American life, despite a horrible 1979 scare at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania and, in 1986, the world's worst nuclear accident at the Chernobyl Power Station (in the Soviet Union), where 133,000 are evacuated and clouds of fallout affect all Europe.

1950s: Science-fiction becomes a popular (although somewhat critically dismissed) art form: initially sparked by Orson Welles's 1938 radio production of H. G. Wells The War of the Worlds, which caused considerable panic, American interest in extraterrestrial life is found in Ray Bradbury's successful collection of stories, The Martian Chronicles.

Today: Science-fiction is an established genre for many writers and filmmakers: novelists such as the late Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke are popular favorites; films such as E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and the re-release of the Star Wars trilogy break box-office records; The X-Files, a television show about FBI agents investigating alien and other unexplained activity on earth, becomes a highly-rated and critically-successful series (ironically, the show plays upon paranoia and suspicion of government conspiracy—elements prevalent in the red-baiting 1950s).

1950s: Television becomes a major force in American political and social life: in 1955, there are 33.5 million television sets in American homes. In 1957, NBC presents the first videotaped national broadcast: the Eisenhower/Nixon inauguration.

Today: By 1995, there are 95.9 million television sets in American homes; cable TV and satellite dishes are offering greater services, choice of programming and access to worldwide news. The American public has become more and more demanding about the immediacy of their information. Live events such as the O. J. Simpson murder trial are watched by millions worldwide.

Media Adaptations

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Visit to a Small Planet was adapted as a film by Edmund Beloin and Henry Garson, with Jerry Lewis as Kreton. Released by Paramount in 1960. Available on video.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Further ReadingContemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit), 1985, pp. 402-12. A critical overview of many of Vidal's works, this reference entry addresses the author's background and his work in a variety of genres.

Pemberton, William E "Gore Vidal," in Magill's Survey of American Literature, Vol. 6, Marshall Cavendish, pp. 1998-2008 Another overview of Vidal's career with critical analysis of the author's major works.

Sources Atkinson, Brooks. Review of Visit to a Small Planet in the New York Times, February 8,1957, p. 18.

Salzman, Jack, editor. "Gore Vidal," in The Cambridge Handbook of American Literature, Cambridge University Press, p 248.

Thompson, Howard Review of Visit to a Small Planet in the New York Times, April 14,1960, p 34.


Critical Essays


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